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Why web services versioning is important

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Two words: client synchronization.

Talking to Bill Lazar, he suggested that my web serrvices versioning problems are similar to his problems with Ruby on Rails. He’s got some code running on a pre-1.0 RoR installation. With 1.0, several important constructs changed in the framework, and upgrading to 1.0 would break his application. As we chatted through this, we hit upon the key difference. Although RoR released 1.0, there’s nothing forcing him to actually use it. He can keep using 0.9 (or whatever version he has) as long as he wants. He can try his code on a 1.0 system elsewhere, test it, adjust it, and prepare it for use. Then when he’s ready, he can upgrade his code and his RoR installation at the same time. The version negotiation between the client and server can be planned and synchronized.

For a data structure or service delivered over the public web to a disparate set of clients, this isn’t possible. I cannont time the upgrade of the server to co-incide with an upgrade of the client. In many cases, I don’t even know who the client is. I certainly don’t control them. And even if I knew them all, synchronizing an upgrade would require that I coordinate the upgrade schedules of multiple clients, maintained by multiple people, with varying degrees of interest and need.

The essential component in Bill’s Rails upgrade is a time shift. The RoR framework was released, but Bill can choose when it applies to him by shifting the upgrade to a time that suits him. People that need it now, or are just starting out with Rails can get the 1.0 version immedately. Everyone else can use whatever version they want. The Rails team doesn’t need to maintain old versions of the application. It’s acceptable to say that bugs in the app are fixed in the later versions only and if you have a problem that needs fixing, you should accelerate your upgrade schedule.

With a web service, I can time shift the upgrade path by continuing to supply older versions of the data format. There’s no maintenance involved. The format sits there, and anyone connecting to it can use it. If someone has a problem or needs some new data, they can get it by moving to the newest version. Any new uses of the service start out with the latest version.

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